It’s a little disappointing, after my glowing review of Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings (reviewed a few inches south of here), to deliver a less than enthusiastic review of his earlier work, The Conversion of Scandinavia. Of course it’s ridiculous for me, an amateur historian and fantasy novelist, to challenge a scholar of Winroth’s stature. But this is my area of interest, blast it, and I’m going to defend it with whatever flimsy weapons I’ve got.
The thesis of The Conversion of Scandinavia is fairly easily stated. In Winroth’s view, the conversion essentially never happened – not in the way we’ve been taught. All those cultural clashes and crusader atrocities are just the fancies of Icelandic storytellers. What actually happened (in this view) is that various chieftains and kings realized that Christianity offered both prestige and (in the Church) a bureaucratic model that could be expanded and adapted to solidify their own power. The kings were baptized, and their kingdoms declared officially Christian. Other than that, the changes were few, but the people gradually adapted to the new religious order.
One thing that immediately struck me was that Winroth completely bypasses the institution of the Things, the Viking democratic assemblies that balanced and limited royal power. He writes of the Scandinavian kings as if they were autocrats, ruling by decree. Although he doesn’t explain this omission, I imagine he considers the idea of the Thing another invention of Icelandic saga writers – and in his view (apparently) the very fact that a saga writer says it is conclusive proof of falsehood. He does not recognize the recent work of scholars in the field of folklore studies, who argue that useful information can be preserved in pre-literate societies for three centuries or more through traditional mnemonic devices, before being written down. Continue reading ‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth